This article appeared on the South China Morning Post’s Rewind page
Do they still teach Hemingway in schools these days? Or have the post-modernists, feminist-syndicalists and other ne’er-do-wells succeeded in booting him off the liberal humanist syllabus on the grounds that he was prone to violence, wrestled with Biblical ideas and took delight in women?
I only inquire as I can’t remember what I learned about The Old Man and the Sea, if indeed anything at all; you know, about motifs and metaphors and whatnot. That was always the thing at school, if you recall. So, what have we here? Well, there’s an old man – Santiago – who symbolises “man”, particularly the oldish sort. And there’s the sea, which is, if you will, nature itself, and female at that: “She is kind and very beautiful. But she can be so cruel…”
But there are no actual women besides the old man, just a boy and an ocean full of fish. And in Hemingway, men come alive in nature, without and away from women; they hunt and fish and grapple with life and death, fear and courage, sin and impotence. The old man’s powers are waning but his struggle to land a giant marlin off the coast of Cuba is heroic. With his patience and humility, his bleeding hands and the mast he carries ashore on his back, he is a mortal Christ.
Jesus Christ never had to put up with sharks, though. Santiago does and they are his ruin. After hooking his eight-foot long prize and almost killing himself hauling it in over four days, he finds it’s too big to bring on board his skiff. The sharks come in pairs and packs and devour its flesh.
More than Santiago’s other adversaries – the marlin, his own frailties – Hemingway’s sharks are a truly mortal enemy. Not for him the fun, put-upon creatures Greenpeace would have us believe in: these sharks are hateful beings who kill and scavenge and cut the legs and heads off turtles when they’re sleeping.
It is said Hemingway – who in The Sun Also Rises and Death in the Afternoon had celebrated bull-fighting – never met an animal he didn’t want to kill, but Santiago is a compassionate fellow who sees his prey as a “brother” and grapples (briefly) with the morality of his quest. And where the corrida is depicted as ritualistic and somehow sacred – and thus possessing an authenticity Hemingway saw as lacking among his intellectual acquaintances in Paris – his treatment of sharks seems more rooted in notions of good and evil. As Santiago remarks with some relish to his (dead) fish, after smashing the skull of a shovel-nose with his oar: “We have killed many sharks, you and I, and ruined many others.”
Read all of this as metaphor if you must, but as a study of the human spirit and of what men endure, The Old Man and the Sea is a work of art on or off of whichever syllabus you care to mention.